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Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Rick Carlisle right not to start Devin Harris

By Tim MacMahon

DALLAS -- After a Game 1 loss in San Antonio, Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson made a genius adjustment, inserting speedy guard Devin Harris into the starting lineup to match up with San Antonio Spurs blur Tony Parker.

Devin Harris
Devin Harris averaged only 20.4 minutes per game in the regular season, but played 32 against the Spurs in Game 1. Any more than that would probably yield diminished returns.
That move paid major dividends with Harris averaging 20.7 points while the Mavs reeled off three straight victories in a classic 2006 Western Conference semifinals series that Dallas won in seven games.

Given the circumstances, why shouldn’t Rick Carlisle give history a chance to repeat itself?

You won’t get Carlisle to say much on the subject -- much less confirm that he’s sticking with Jose Calderon as the starter, although Dirk Nowitzki did it for the Mavs' coach -- but his reasoning might be that he doesn’t want to mess with one of the team’s biggest strengths.

Sure, Dallas’ normal starting lineup has been a disaster against the Spurs, getting outscored by 40 points in 33 minutes this season. Calderon’s inability to defend Parker, prompting Carlisle to put 35-year-old small forward Shawn Marion on the Spurs’ All-Star point guard to start the series, is a big part of the problem. If Calderon isn’t an impact offensive player, it’s a pretty safe bet that Carlisle will have a quick hook for him again.

But the Mavs still had a golden opportunity to win Game 1, primarily because a bench led by Harris (19 points, five assists) played so well. Is it worth potentially killing the chemistry of the Mavs’ second unit to get Harris in the starting lineup?

“It’s been one of our strengths, so there’s a lot of value in it,” Carlisle said of the Mavs’ bench. “[Harris has] been one of the keys to our team since he came back. NBA games are long. There is a lot going on out there.”

NBA games are long, so the Mavs’ best chance to strike against the Spurs isn’t necessarily at the start of the first and third quarters. The Spurs’ reserves led the NBA in bench scoring, but the Mavs’ most successful lineup is four reserves plus Nowitzki against opposing second units.

The lineup of Harris, Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder had a ridiculous net rating of plus-26.6 points per 100 possessions in 109 minutes during the regular season. That five outscored the Spurs by 16 points in 10 minutes during Game 1.

If Harris starts, it’d be awfully hard to set up the rotation to get that group on the floor very often without the point guard being gassed. Remember, Harris averaged only 20.4 minutes per game this season. He played 32 in Game 1, but pushing him past that would probably result in diminished returns.

The Harris/Carter/Wright trio had a net rating of plus-11.0 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. Carter and Wright don’t have the same chemistry with Calderon (plus-0.3 net rating).

The other issue: How much would replacing Calderon with Harris really help the starting lineup? Harris played only 22 minutes all season with the other four starters.

Harris is certainly much better suited to defend Parker. That would prevent the dangerous cross-match of having Monta Ellis on Kawhi Leonard, an invitation for the Spurs to pound the ball inside to a 6-foot-7, 230-pound small forward who ranked second in the NBA in post-up scoring efficiency (1.16 points per possession, according to Synergy data). That strategy was a subject of discussion after San Antonio’s practice Monday.

But there’s reason to be concerned about the offensive compatibility of Harris and Ellis against the Spurs after Game 1, especially if San Antonio keeps going under screens and daring the Dallas guards to beat them with perimeter jumpers. With that guard duo in the game Sunday, the Mavs scored only 19 points in 19 minutes, going 7-of-33 from the floor.

Carlisle certainly isn’t afraid to shake up his starting lineup during the playoff series. He proved that by plugging in J.J. Barea for DeShawn Stevenson before Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals, a momentum-shifting decision that gave the Mavs’ starting backcourt a turbo boost and bolstered the bench’s defense.

But Carlisle apparently doesn’t believe the Mavs would benefit by starting Harris, and there’s a lot of logic to support that line of thinking.